Gone in 60 nanoseconds
By Charles Krauthammer, October 6, 2011
“We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.
A neutrino walks into a bar.
— Joke circulating on the Internet
The world as we know it is on the brink of disintegration, on the verge of dissolution. No, I’m not talking about the collapse of the euro, of international finance, of the Western economies, of the democratic future, of the unipolar moment, of the American dream, of French banks, of Greece as a going concern, of Europe as an idea, of Pax Americana — the sinews of a postwar world that feels today to be unraveling.
I am talking about something far more important. Which is why it made only the back pages of your newspaper, if it made it at all. Scientists at CERN, the European high-energy physics consortium, have announced the discovery of a particle that can travel faster than light.
Neutrinos fired 454 miles from a supercollider outside Geneva to an underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, took less time (60 nanoseconds less) than light to get there. Or so the physicists think. Or so they measured. Or so they have concluded after checking for every possible artifact and experimental error.
The implications of such a discovery are so mind-boggling, however, that these same scientists immediately requested that other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment. Something must have been wrong — some faulty measurement, some overlooked contaminant — to account for a result that, if we know anything about the universe, is impossible.
And that’s the problem. It has to be impossible because, if not, if that did happen on this Orient Express hurtling between Switzerland and Italy, then everything we know about the universe is wrong.
The fundamental axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition on speed faster than light. Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time dilates, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has.
Until two weeks ago Thursday.
That’s when the results were announced. To oversimplify grossly: If the Gran Sasso scientists had a plate to record the arrival of the neutrinos and a super-powerful telescope to peer (through the Alps!) directly into the lab in Geneva from which they were being fired, the Gran Sasso guys would have “heard” the neutrinos clanging against the plate before they observed the Geneva guys squeeze the trigger on the neutrino gun.
Sixty nanoseconds before, to be precise. Wrap your mind around that one.
It’s as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time Topeka was released from Earth’s gravity. These things don’t happen. Natural laws don’t just expire between shifts at McDonald’s.
Not that there aren’t already mysteries in physics. Neutrinos themselves are ghostly particles that travel through nearly everything unimpeded. (Thousands are traversing your body as you read this.) But that is simplicity itself compared to quantum mechanics, whose random arbitrariness so offended Einstein that he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe.
Aphorisms don’t trump reality, however. They are but a frail, poignant protest against a universe that often disdains the most cherished human notions of order and elegance, truth and beauty.
But if quantum mechanics was a challenge to human sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their undoing. It means that Einstein’s relativity — a theory of uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100 years — is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.
It means that the “standard model” of subatomic particles that stands at the center of all modern physics is wrong.
Nor does it stop there. This will not just overthrow physics. Astronomy and cosmology measure time and distance in the universe on the assumption of light speed as the cosmic limit. Their foundations will shake as well.
It cannot be. Yet, this is not a couple of guys in a garage peddling cold fusion. This is no crank wheeling a perpetual motion machine into the patent office. These are the best researchers in the world using the finest measuring instruments, having subjected their data to the highest levels of scrutiny, including six months of cross-checking by 160 scientists from 11 countries.
But there must be some error. Because otherwise everything changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then shortly and surely, new theologies.
Why? Because we can’t have neutrinos getting kicked out of taverns they have not yet entered.